Can Theistic Explanations Succeed? (part 7)

by Luke Muehlhauser on September 25, 2010 in Guest Post

Guest blogger John D of Philosophical Disquisitions summarizes contemporary articles in philosophy of religion in plain talk so that you can be up to speed on the God debate as it ensues at the highest levels of thought. This series was previously posted to John’s blog.

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This post is part of my series on Chapter 7 of Gregory Dawes’s book Theism and Explanation. In this chapter, Dawes considers the merits of theistic explanations in light of six explanatory virtues.

Part one introduced the topic and looked at the explanatory virtue of testability. Part two focused on the explanatory virtues of consistency with background knowledge and past explanatory success. And part three dealt with the virtues of simplicity and ontological economy.

In this final entry in the series, we will consider theism in light of the virtue of informativeness, and we will also summarise the conclusions reached in this chapter.

What is Informativeness?

In defining informativeness, Dawes relies on Peter Lipton‘s definition of a “lovely” explanation. This definition has two aspects to it. First, the explanation must specify some causal mechanism. Second, it must allow us to deduce precise effects that would arise from this mechanism.

Earlier in the book, Dawes argued that theistic explanations are unlikely to be able to specify a causal mechanism, but that this is not necessarily a fatal objection to them. Still, it is worth seeing how well theism does in terms of the second aspect of informativeness, i.e. our ability to deduce precise effects from it.

It will no doubt shock you to learn that theism is not very informative in this regard. Let’s see why that is.

Quantifiable Predictions and Intentional Explanations

The first, somewhat spurious, objection to theism is that we cannot deduce precise quantifiable predictions from it. This is something that we can do in the case of the most successful scientific explanation: we can specify a causal mechanism and specify what the measurable effects of this mechanism would be (see my posts on neuroscientific explanations for more).

But the fact that theism fails in this regard is not a serious charge. Theistic explanations are a species of intentional explanation. As such they explain events and states of affairs in terms of the goals and intentions of an agent. We employ such explanations all the time, e.g. when trying to make sense of the behaviour of our family and friends.

None of these everyday intentional explanations yield precise quantifiable predictions, so we shouldn’t expect theism to do so either.

The Problem of Mysteriousness

There is, however, a problem with theistic explanations that is not shared by typical intentional explanations. In dealing with human behaviour and social interaction, we know what to expect.

For instance, we know the type of conduct to expect from someone if they are feeling hungry, or if they have just learned that their husband/wife are cheating on them, or if they have a desire to become a doctor and so on. In this sense, everyday intentional explanations are informative.

Theistic explanations are not. We are not able to generate similar expectations when applying mental or action predicates to God because the nature of his agency is “wholly other”. The mental and actions predicates that are applied to human beings are tailored to their finite, temporal and physical properties. What would it mean to apply the same predicates to an infinite, eternal and non-physical being.

Theists have ways out of this problem. They can argue that there is a core meaning to the predicates that does depend on the properties of human beings. For example, they could argue that the action predicate “creates” has a core meaning of “uses imagination to bring into being”. This core meaning does not rely on temporal, finite or physical properties.

This may be true. But in extracting the core meaning, we take away all the things that make these predicates informative (in the sense defined above). We do not really know what to expect from a creation that emanates from an infinite, eternal and non-physical being.

The Problem of Accommodation

This leads to a final problem for theistic explanations. Because they have a tendency to be uninformative, they also have a tendency for accommodationism. That is: they tend to make the evidence fit with the hypothesis, rather than predicting what the evidence should be given the hypothesis.

The example that Dawes uses to illustrate this point is quite interesting. He imagines a believer who has a powerful experience of confidence and joy when reading passages of scripture. The believer is told that he has experienced what is known as the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit”.

This explains his experience and also serves to corroborate religious claims concerning the authority of the scripture.

But there is a huge problem with this explanation of the experience. Since theism is uninformative, we have no idea what it would mean to receive testimony from an incorporeal being. And it is because theism is uninformative that it is all too easy for the believer to offer spurious explanations of this sort.

Dawes concludes by noting that uninformativeness is a serious problem for theists. Indeed, it is so serious that it means non-theistic, natural explanations that yield precise predictions will almost always be preferable.

Summary

In this series we have investigated the explanatory merits of theism in light of six explanatory virtues. The results of this investigation are summarised in the image below.

(click to enlarge)

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Adito September 25, 2010 at 1:09 pm

I would really like to see a good answer from a theist about the problem discussed in this article. It seems that no matter what conclusion we reach about an event (such as the idea that it must have been caused by something supernatural) we can never say anything about the supernatural force/being. There’s just no frame of reference to do so.

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Tony Hoffman September 26, 2010 at 7:42 am

Love this. I have copied the link to the chart, and plan on referencing it with an asterisk whenever I write: “… because theistic explanations suck.*”

* http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/Explanatory-Virtues-and-Theism.png

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lukeprog September 26, 2010 at 8:10 am

Tony Hoffman,

That’s a lovely idea. :)

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Chris K September 26, 2010 at 11:56 am

The criteria of informativeness looks again to rely on the idea of divine intentionality being “wholly other” to human intentionality. But I am under the assumption that Dawes doesn’t accept complete divine mysteriousness. He thinks that we can put rationality and optimality constraints on divine intentionality, thus making more sense of divine reasons, goals, and desires. But if this is the case, then divine intentionality isn’t uninformative.

In the classical doctrine of univocity, extracting the core meaning of an action or intention means extracting meaning that is shared by both agents. It is simply not true that we take away all the things that make the predicates informative. Whether or not we can precisely define what it means to create something non-physically or a-temporally, we do have informative benefits in virtue of the core meaning of intentionally and purposively bringing into being. Further, we have additional information given to us in divinely revealed scriptures. To say that theistic explanations are uninformative must simply to be looking for the wrong kind of information. For to appeal to divine mystery, constrained in this way, is perhaps make prediction of divine intentions more difficult, but it cannot rule out predictions based on uninformativeness.

As for accommodation, it is pretty easy to avoid this charge in the example given by Dawes. It is clearly false that the believer has no ability to predict what a religious experience or divine testimony might look like. The history of religious thought is replete with information that can guide the believer to make confident predictions regarding religious experiences. Alston’s Perceiving God is a good resource to understand the religious assessment of religious perceptual experience.

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Tony Hoffman September 26, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Chris K: “But I am under the assumption that Dawes doesn’t accept complete divine mysteriousness. He thinks that we can put rationality and optimality constraints on divine intentionality, thus making more sense of divine reasons, goals, and desires. But if this is the case, then divine intentionality isn’t uninformative.”

What’s your point? It seems like you’ve taken up three sentences to say, um, “divine intentionality is informative.” Please explain how.

Chris K: In the classical doctrine of univocity, extracting the core meaning of an action or intention means extracting meaning that is shared by both agents. It is simply not true that we take away all the things that make the predicates informative. Whether or not we can precisely define what it means to create something non-physically or a-temporally, we do have informative benefits in virtue of the core meaning of intentionally and purposively bringing into being.

Wow. You’re like a walking caricature.

Chris K: To say that theistic explanations are uninformative must simply to be looking for the wrong kind of information.

Must it? Please explain how.

Chris K: For to appeal to divine mystery, constrained in this way, is perhaps make prediction of divine intentions more difficult, but it cannot rule out predictions based on uninformativeness.

Yes. Now it’s so much clearer to me.

Chris K: As for accommodation, it is pretty easy to avoid this charge in the example given by Dawes. It is clearly false that the believer has no ability to predict what a religious experience or divine testimony might look like.

At this point, the entrance of a strawman in your “writing” is genuinely refreshing.

Chris K: The history of religious thought is replete with information that can guide the believer to make confident predictions regarding religious experiences. Alston’s Perceiving God is a good resource to understand the religious assessment of religious perceptual experience.

I’d rephrase your first paragraph above to read “The history of religious thought is replete with claims that either cannot be tested or fail testing.”

You’ve missed the entire point. Why does something like Alston’s Perceiving God even matter in view of the 6 failings painstakingly detailed in this series? Engage with the problem, at least. But what you wrote here appears to be just unrelated drivel.

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Chris K September 27, 2010 at 6:15 am

Tony,

“What’s your point? It seems like you’ve taken up three sentences to say, um, “divine intentionality is informative.” Please explain how.”

The point is that Dawes himself thinks that divine intentionality can be informative. How? Through the optimality and rationality constraints, discussed earlier in this series.

“Wow. You’re like a walking caricature… Must it? Please explain how…Yes. Now it’s so much clearer to me.”

Okay, so the critique here is that I’ve offered nothing in the way of concrete examples of how divine intentionality is informative, right? I suppose that I was assuming that the optimality and rationality constraints serve as satisfactory methodological examples, in that Dawes seems to think that they do. So here is a concrete example: divine promises given in scriptures. So James 1:5: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” We have here a statement of divine intentionality which leads us to expect a specific result. I understand this to be informative of what God is like and what we should be able to predict concerning him.

“At this point, the entrance of a strawman in your “writing” is genuinely refreshing.”

I fail to see where I’ve committed a strawman fallacy. John D (summarizing Dawes) writes, “Since theism is uninformative, we have no idea what it would mean to receive testimony from an incorporeal being.” My argument is that theism is informative, and we do have an idea what it would mean to receive testimony from an incorporeal being.

“I’d rephrase your first paragraph above to read ‘The history of religious thought is replete with claims that either cannot be tested or fail testing.’ You’ve missed the entire point. Why does something like Alston’s Perceiving God even matter in view of the 6 failings painstakingly detailed in this series?”

What I’m trying to do here is address the specific charge of accommodation, the tendency to make the evidence fit with the hypothesis, rather than predicting what the evidence should be given the hypothesis. Perhaps I lazily introduced Alston’s Perceiving God. The section relevant to this discussion is pp. 209-222, “Checks and Tests of Particular Perceptual Beliefs.” His whole argument in this section is designed to combat the specific charge of accommodation. I was thinking of one quote in particular: “The great mystics of the Middle Ages and Counter-Reformation almost weary one with their incessant talk about the difficulties of distinguishing genuine from counterfeit perception of God. They are keenly aware that we cannot uncritically accept any old claim to be directly aware of God; these experiences might be due to the devil or to an overheated imagination. As we have seen, they devote much thought to the articulation of criteria that will enable us to tell when we have the real thing.” The point here is that theists do have criteria, they do have information that they can cull from their tradition, in order to test whether or not a putative religious experience is a genuine one.

I believe that I have engaged with both the problem of divine mysteriousness and the problem of accommodation. Perhaps I was unclear in my previous post. Do my responses in this post make sense to you?

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Tony Hoffman September 27, 2010 at 7:32 am

Chris K: “The point is that Dawes himself thinks that divine intentionality can be informative. How? Through the optimality and rationality constraints, discussed earlier in this series.”

Yes, but allowing that divine intentionality could be informative is different than saying it is informative. Unicorns could exist. As I see it, optimality and rationality constraints are a lifeline offered to the theist that none of them seem willing to grasp.

Chris K: “Okay, so the critique here is that I’ve offered nothing in the way of concrete examples of how divine intentionality is informative, right? I suppose that I was assuming that the optimality and rationality constraints serve as satisfactory methodological examples, in that Dawes seems to think that they do. So here is a concrete example: divine promises given in scriptures. So James 1:5: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” We have here a statement of divine intentionality which leads us to expect a specific result. I understand this to be informative of what God is like and what we should be able to predict concerning him.

Hmm. What are the precise effects of being given wisdom by God to those who lack it and ask it of God? You seem to be replying to the criticism that theist explanations are vague and uninformative by asserting that something vague and uninformative is indeed satisfactory. I believe the theist needs to, as you say, specify what result is to be expected. What, specifically, can we predict from the test you offer from James?

I fail to see where I’ve committed a strawman fallacy. John D (summarizing Dawes) writes, “Since theism is uninformative, we have no idea what it would mean to receive testimony from an incorporeal being.” My argument is that theism is informative, and we do have an idea what it would mean to receive testimony from an incorporeal being.

Previously you had written:

Chris K: As for accommodation, it is pretty easy to avoid this charge in the example given by Dawes. It is clearly false that the believer has no ability to predict what a religious experience or divine testimony might look like.

In the quote immediately above it appears that you are asserting that Dawes is arguing that theistic explanations fail because believers cannot predict what a religious experience might look like. I do not see this claim in the chart above. It isn’t that believers might fail to make predictions, it’s that the predictions tend to fail the tests. Failing tests ≠ failing to make predictions, hence my characterization as a strawman.

The point here is that theists do have criteria, they do have information that they can cull from their tradition, in order to test whether or not a putative religious experience is a genuine one.

Having tests and having tests that work and/or do not fall prey to accommodationism are two different things. I think you are failing to properly distinguish between experiments and failed experiments.

I do appreciate your reply. But I think you need to overcome the problems outlined in this chart with something meaningful – either falsify the claims, or show where the claims are inconsistent with explanation, etc.

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Chris K September 27, 2010 at 9:21 am

Tony,

I believe that the optimality constraint is informative of divine intentionality, but that it is limited in its application to God’s agency. We can say that God chooses optimal means to ends. This rules out some states of affairs. So for example, we can say from the Christian tradition, lying is for God a sub-optimal means to an end. We can conclude then that God’s message to us is truthful. It rules out the possibility that God lies to us in Scripture.

However, we cannot easily apply the optimality constraint across the board, for sometimes God seems to act in sub-optimal ways. For example, it would appear that providing for the salvation of humanity through the suffering and death of the second person of the Trinity is a sub-optimal means to an end. If God is omnipotent, couldn’t he save humanity without pain, without suffering, and without death? Wouldn’t that be a more optimal means to providing salvation? But God does not do this. So the Christian tradition explicitly denies that God always acts in ways that we understand as optimal.

“What, specifically, can we predict from the test you offer from James?”

We can predict that if I genuinely ask God for wisdom, then God will give me wisdom. Of course, moral character isn’t something that is easily empirically testable. But I consider it to be a form of epistemic imperialism to expect the prediction outputs of one (to use Alston’s term) doxastic practice to conform to the prediction outputs of another field of practice. Just because the assessment of moral character doesn’t align easily with the criterion of empirical testability doesn’t mean that we discount its rationality. It may be vague in empirical terms, but it is not thereby uninformative. I can reflectively assess my own character and the actions that it has produced to determine whether or not I have been granted wisdom. I can ask others to assess my character and actions as well.

“Failing tests ≠ failing to make predictions, hence my characterization as a strawman.”

Again, the quote that I am arguing against states, “Since theism is uninformative, we have no idea what it would mean to receive testimony from an incorporeal being.” Dawes is arguing that because God is “wholly other,” theism is uninformative, and that because theism is uninformative, the theist has no grounds upon which to make a prediction. I take it that “we have no idea what it would mean to receive testimony” = we have no grounds on which we can make predictions. The chart at the end of the post summarizes all of Dawes’ arguments. I have argued at places in the previous posts as to why Dawes may be mistaken. I am not tackling the summarizing chart here, but the arguments given for the final explanatory virtue.

“Having tests and having tests that work and/or do not fall prey to accommodationism are two different things. I think you are failing to properly distinguish between experiments and failed experiments.”

Again, I would reply that it is epistemic imperialism to think that the tests/experiments on putative perceptions of God must conform to the tests/experiments of other doxastic practices. There are clear criteria for judging religious experiences, such as moral fruit, consistency with Scripture, etc. These are predictive criteria that serve to ensure we don’t justify any old experience as a perception of God.

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Tony Hoffman September 27, 2010 at 10:36 am

I believe that the optimality constraint is informative of divine intentionality, but that it is limited in its application to God’s agency. We can say that God chooses optimal means to ends. This rules out some states of affairs. So for example, we can say from the Christian tradition, lying is for God a sub-optimal means to an end. We can conclude then that God’s message to us is truthful. It rules out the possibility that God lies to us in Scripture.

How is lying sub-optimal? How can we rule out God lying from the Christian tradition? (I would venture that saying that you love your creation and that you want your creation to suffer that you could be accused of lying.)

And from the above it seems that you say that from the Christian tradition (which I believe includes Scripture) that we can rule out lying, which rules out that God lies to us in Scripture. Isn’t that obviously circular?

But God does not do this. So the Christian tradition explicitly denies that God always acts in ways that we understand as optimal.

Yup. And I would say that things become pretty uninformative then. If we don’t have optimal, we have a being who is mysterious. And a mysterious agent is the same as no agent at all. Hence, uninformative.

We can predict that if I genuinely ask God for wisdom, then God will give me wisdom.

Okay. Then I predict that if invisible unicorns will grant me wisdom, they will give me wisdom. Just don’t expect to test me on that claim, but trust me when I say that I have reflectively assessed my own character, and that I have asked others (especially my fellow unicornists), and they affirm my character as well. That should be good enough for you.

Again, I would reply that it is epistemic imperialism to think that the tests/experiments on putative perceptions of God must conform to the tests/experiments of other doxastic practices.

In order to persuade you need to make an argument as to why this should be the case, one that doesn’t appear to be exactly the same as special pleading.

There are clear criteria for judging religious experiences, such as moral fruit, consistency with Scripture, etc. These are predictive criteria that serve to ensure we don’t justify any old experience as a perception of God.

Moral fruit is a clear criterion? Do tell.

As for consistency with Scripture being a way to judge religious experience, this is putting the cart before the horse. First, we must judge that scripture is based on divine intervention, which it most certainly does not appear to be.

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Chris K September 27, 2010 at 12:31 pm

I take divine truthfulness to be a condition for the possibility of Christian truth claims and practice. We don’t establish divine truthfulness on the basis that Scripture says God doesn’t lie. We establish it on the fact that if anything like Christianity is possible, God must be truthful. If the theist takes as possible the claim that God could be lying about the fact that He does not lie, the theist would in effect undermine all of her truth claims about God and ultimate reality. Thus, any theist who denies that divine lying is a sub-optimal action denies any kind of real religious truth claims. No circularity here.

“If we don’t have optimal, we have a being who is mysterious. And a mysterious agent is the same as no agent at all. Hence, uninformative.”

It is not clear at all to me how you can derive your conclusions from your premises. First, sometimes we can apply the optimality constraint easily, and sometimes it is more difficult to do so. If we grant that God does at sometime or another fit our prima facie understanding of optimality, this is enough to grant that the God-hypothesis does rule out some states of affairs, and thus is informative. It is also true that sometimes God does not fit our prima facie understanding of optimality. But this doesn’t undermine the states of affairs that we can rule out. So God has informative aspects and mysterious aspects. However, it is just not the case that a mysterious agent is the same as no agent at all, let alone an agent who is partly mysterious and partly informative. While we don’t understand some aspects of why God doesn’t fit our prima facie concept of optimality, we are not thereby justified in assertive that God is wholly mysterious and uninformative.

“Then I predict that if invisible unicorns will grant me wisdom, they will give me wisdom.”

Nice! I just wonder where you have a non-ad hoc record of their promising to grant you wisdom.

“In order to persuade you need to make an argument as to why this should be the case, one that doesn’t appear to be exactly the same as special pleading.”

The basic argument is this: There are many domains of inquiry/practice that do not rely on empirical or scientific criteria to determine validity and/or knowledge in that realm. Of course we have things like the laws of logic and mathematics. Many are also apt to say that moral knowledge isn’t reducible to tests of an empirical sort. Another key example is that of immediate phenomenological knowledge such as “I feel pain,” or “I am now excited.” We should not expect conscious states to undergo the same criterion for validity as reports of sensory experience. Each domain has a set of investigative criteria that is proper to it. It is not special pleading to say that religious experiences and the like have their own proper criteria just to the degree that we can say the same about other domains.

The criteria of moral fruit looks like this (from Alston p.203): does the subject of a putative perception of God exhibit discretion or exaggeration and excess? Interior peace or perturbation? Patience in pains or impatience with trials? Simplicity and sincerity or duplicity and dissimulation? Charity that is meek, kindly, self-forgetful or false, bitter pharisaical zeal?

Recall that the criterion is given from within the doxastic practice. For the non-believer, Scripture has no authority and therefore doesn’t make sense as a valid criterion. However, consistency with Scripture for the believer is an ideal and therefore a rational test of validity.

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Tony Hoffman September 27, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Chris K: “I take divine truthfulness to be a condition for the possibility of Christian truth claims and practice. We don’t establish divine truthfulness on the basis that Scripture says God doesn’t lie. We establish it on the fact that if anything like Christianity is possible, God must be truthful. If the theist takes as possible the claim that God could be lying about the fact that He does not lie, the theist would in effect undermine all of her truth claims about God and ultimate reality. Thus, any theist who denies that divine lying is a sub-optimal action denies any kind of real religious truth claims. No circularity here.”

Not really sure what you’re saying here. You seem to admit that divine truthfulness is a condition, which I take to mean a premise of Christianity, then go on to assert that it is not circular because then the theist’s claims would be undermined. It reads to me like you’re saying that God must be truthful or your faith in the Christian God isn’t justified. (Um, so what?) I think you have other problems with your beliefs, but I’ll say that you have given me no reason to believe that God is truthful.

However, it is just not the case that a mysterious agent is the same as no agent at all, let alone an agent who is partly mysterious and partly informative. While we don’t understand some aspects of why God doesn’t fit our prima facie concept of optimality, we are not thereby justified in assertive that God is wholly mysterious and uninformative.

Let’s cut to the chase. What aspect of God’s optimality are we justified in asserting? Please demonstrate how this explanation can predict, or do any of the things asked for in the chart in the OP.

If I were you I’d use the analogy of weather prediction. Can we predict the weather flawlessly? Of course not. But we can do it pretty darn well. That’s because we understand the patterns, and we’re finding ways to acquire more data (atmospheric readings, satellites, etc.), and we’re getting better at all of it. So the fact that the weatherman is sometimes wrong does not mean that we can’t predict the weather. So, what can we predict with the God hypothesis? Please, be specific. Weatherman specific.

Me: “Then I predict that if invisible unicorns will grant me wisdom, they will give me wisdom.”
Chris K: Nice! I just wonder where you have a non-ad hoc record of their promising to grant you wisdom.

No problem. Just give me 90 years to try a bunch of different unicorn stories and see which ones stick, pile them together in a contradictory mish mash that has some support for just about anything, then after about 300 more years I’ll make some final selections, throw a lot of stuff out and destroy it so no one can ever see it again, make a bunch of copies, and after another 1600 years I can declare none of it ad hoc.

It is not special pleading to say that religious experiences and the like have their own proper criteria just to the degree that we can say the same about other domains.

Um, no. Mathematics is testable empirically. 1 + 1 = 2 may qualify as a priori, but if you don’t think that mathematics can be verified empirically then you don’t believe in things like bank accounts, or Physics.

We should not expect conscious states to undergo the same criterion for validity as reports of sensory experience. Each domain has a set of investigative criteria that is proper to it.

Well, no. Consciousness is being studied scientifically, and that study is yielding scientific results.

The criteria of moral fruit looks like this (from Alston p.203): does the subject of a putative perception of God exhibit discretion or exaggeration and excess? Interior peace or perturbation? Patience in pains or impatience with trials? Simplicity and sincerity or duplicity and dissimulation? Charity that is meek, kindly, self-forgetful or false, bitter pharisaical zeal?

Wow. That’s really, really terrible. So it’s a clear criterion of moral fruit (?) if the subject of a putative perception of God exhibits sincerity, or pharisaical zeal? Yikes. I bring this up because you seem both sincere, and zealous as a Pharisee. So where does that place you on the moral fruit scale?

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Chris K September 28, 2010 at 6:39 am

“I’ll say that you have given me no reason to believe that God is truthful.”

The point is not to get you to believe that God is truthful. The point is that the theist applies the optimality constraint when she declares God as truthful. In so doing, she offers a theistic explanation that is informative about God and rules out some states of affairs.

“Let’s cut to the chase. What aspect of God’s optimality are we justified in asserting? Please demonstrate how this explanation can predict, or do any of the things asked for in the chart in the OP… So, what can we predict with the God hypothesis? Please, be specific. Weatherman specific.”

In addition to divine truthfulness being an optimality constraint on theistic explanations, it also serves as a prediction basis. When the theist posits divine truthfulness as an optimality constraint, we have the ability to make a prediction based on the God hypothesis: that Scripture is truthful. This is a prediction that is in principle falsifiable.

I also gave the example of divine promises. Again, these prediction bases that are in principle falsifiable. I suppose I could give you more examples that give us the ability to make very specific predictions, as the two above. But like you said, let’s cut to the chase. It has been stipulated in this series of posts that theistic explanations are a variety of intentional explanation. No kind of intentional explanation produces the kind of quantifiable prediction outputs that causal mechanisms do. And though intentional explanations (of our friends or family members) are less predictable/reliable and therefore epistemically inferior to causal mechanisms in terms of predictive efficacy, checks and tests, etc., this does not mean that we are not rationally justified in asserting intentional explanations or that they cannot be good explanations. And so, following Alston, I am prepared to recognize that the predictive efficacy and checks and tests of causal mechanisms and even of everyday intentional explanations are to be highly desired. It would be great if we had the same kind of checks and tests for every field of inquiry that we do for sense perception of causal mechanisms. But though theistic explanations are epistemically inferior to causal mechanisms and everyday intentional explanations in this respect, this does not mean that we are not rationally justified in asserting theistic explanations or that they cannot be good explanations.

“No problem. Just give me 90 years to try a bunch of different unicorn stories and see which ones stick, pile them together in a contradictory mish mash that has some support for just about anything, then after about 300 more years I’ll make some final selections, throw a lot of stuff out and destroy it so no one can ever see it again, make a bunch of copies, and after another 1600 years I can declare none of it ad hoc.”

Well-played, although this does mean that we’re going to have to wait a while for the unicorn hypothesis to catch up to the theistic hypothesis.

“Um, no. Mathematics is testable empirically…Well, no. Consciousness is being studied scientifically…”

I think you missed what I was arguing. I agree that mathematics and consciousness are testable empirically. The point is that we can have knowledge in these areas without empirical checks and tests.

“Wow. That’s really, really terrible. So it’s a clear criterion of moral fruit (?) if the subject of a putative perception of God exhibits sincerity, or pharisaical zeal? Yikes. I bring this up because you seem both sincere, and zealous as a Pharisee. So where does that place you on the moral fruit scale?”

Hmm… maybe you’ve misunderstood/I was unclear? The “or” in the list of moral criteria is meant to be exclusive rather than inclusive, so that discretion, peace, patience, simplicity, sincerity, and charity are all moral qualities that we should predict/expect to see from someone who has claimed to have an experience of God. Exaggeration, excess, perturbation, impatience, duplicity, dissimulation, or bitter pharasaical zeal are qualities such that if a person who has claimed to have an experience of God displays even one of these negative qualities, it will be extremely unlikely that that person had a genuine perception of God. Moral fruit is just a phrase that means the moral qualities that are produced in a person. Does this make sense to you?

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Tony Hoffman September 28, 2010 at 9:57 am

Chris K: The point is that the theist applies the optimality constraint when she declares God as truthful.

I just don’t understand in what way truthfulness is optimal, and how we can know that one of the optimal properties that we can apply to God is truthfulness, as opposed to a property in which he remains mysterious. It seems equally obvious to me that God is mysterious when it comes to truthfulness.

Chris K: When the theist posits divine truthfulness as an optimality constraint, we have the ability to make a prediction based on the God hypothesis: that Scripture is truthful. This is a prediction that is in principle falsifiable.

Okay, now I think I see where you’re going; truthfulness is a premise like in an inductive argument, and we use the God hypothesis to test our premise. I can’t rule this out not working.

I also gave the example of divine promises. Again, these prediction bases that are in principle falsifiable.

If you agree that divine promises are falsifiable then it’s game over for God’s truthfulness.

I suppose I could give you more examples that give us the ability to make very specific predictions, as the two above.

Hysterical. Neither of the two examples you gave previously are at all specific. They are untestable, with lots and lots and lots of wiggle room.

But though theistic explanations are epistemically inferior to causal mechanisms and everyday intentional explanations in this respect, this does not mean that we are not rationally justified in asserting theistic explanations or that they cannot be good explanations.

Except for all the reasons painstakingly detailed in this series. You sound like the lone, lunatic holdout in a deadlocked jury. And I don’t mean a 12 angry men jury – I mean a Blagojevich jury.

Exaggeration, excess, perturbation, impatience, duplicity, dissimulation, or bitter pharasaical zeal are qualities such that if a person who has claimed to have an experience of God displays even one of these negative qualities, it will be extremely unlikely that that person had a genuine perception of God.

This remains preposterous. You appear to be suggesting that an internal experience that you have can be evaluated by me based on whether or not you are exaggerating an experience that is internal to you. And I would know that you are exaggerating because…? This is like suggesting that the right way to make souffle is not to follow a recipe but to add ingredients while making sure that none of them are ”too big” nor “wrong-seeming.” Your terms are so vague as to be meaningless.

I think I’m pretty much done here. I’m not learning anything, and you don’t appear to be terribly interested in examining your claims.

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Chris K September 28, 2010 at 10:52 am

If you’ve granted that divine truthfulness and promises are falsifiable, then you’ve granted that they’re testable. The problem is that you’re looking for easier-to-test-for predictions, ones with less wiggle room, like the ones we get from causal mechanisms, human intentions, and even weather. I’m sympathetic to this. I’d like for this to be available for the God hypothesis as well. So I agree that theistic explanations are epistemically inferior in this regard.

But what I’m claiming, and you disagree with, is that this is simply because theistic explanations are of a different kind than naturalistic explanations or even human intentional explanations. So while the God hypothesis is inferior in terms of predictive efficacy, its rationality should be treated on its own terms, rather than on the terms of naturalistic explanations. So I’m claiming that there is a distinction to be made between the rationality of the theistic hypothesis and its overall epistemic standing, that one can be rational in offering a theistic explanation while not being able to offering as much easily testable prediction material as the naturalistic explanation. I can see why you would reject that distinction, though I maintain that it holds due to the difference in kinds of explanation.

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